Charles Dickens’ close link with Malton stemmed from his friendship with Charles Smithson, a member of a Solicitor’s family who practised in Chancery Lane, Malton and shared also in the London firm Smithson and Dunn.
Charles Smithson was the eleventh child and sixth son of Richard and Sarah Smithson. He was baptised at St Michael’s Church, Malton on Christmas Eve, 1804. At the age of nineteen Charles became articled to his eldest brother John in Chancery Lane where he and his father were partners. Today this building is marked by a commemorative plaque. On the death of John at the early age of 39, Charles moved to London to continue his training under the auspices of another older brother Henry. Three years later their Father died which necessitated Henry returning to Malton to carry on that firm, whilst Charles remained in London.
During this period Charles met and established what was to become a lifelong friendship with Charles Dickens. It was through the famous author’s friend Thomas Mitton that Dickens first became acquainted with Charles Smithson. Mitton had borrowed £1050 to buy a third share in the firm of Smithson and Dunn in order to practise as a Solicitor, Dickens agreed to provide standing surety for his friend and it was during these business transactions that the two first met.
As the friendship developed Dickens met other people connected with Smithson. The firm of Smithson and Dunn were the London Agents of Richard Barnes (1807-63) the attorney, at Barnard Castle, who was to be the model for John Brodie in Nicholas Nickleby. Smithson himself is mentioned in the preface, as the professional friend from whom Dickens obtained a letter of introduction to Barnes.
The harsh realities of life in Victorian times, so aptly described in Dickens’ novels is amply demonstrated by the Smithson family fortunes. Lifespans were often short and in 1840, Henry followed his father and brother John to his grave – and this in a family of relative affluence clearly demonstrates many life expectancies then. Charles was compelled to leave London and take over both the Chancery Lane practice and the duties of the town Bailiff previously carried out by his Father and Brother. His homecoming cannot have been a particularly happy event.
Charles lived at Easthorpe Hall near Malton until the autumn of 1843, when he moved to the Abbey House in Old Malton, behind St Mary’s Priory Church where he also died in 1844 aged only 39 years. (The interesting Abbey House is now a private Residential Home for the Elderly).
Dickens attended the funeral at Old Malton, leaving York by post-chaise at 7.00 am on the 5th April and arriving just in time for the funeral at 9.30 am. No doubt this speedy journey over rough uneven terrain was very uncomfortable, but it emphasises Dickens’ tenacity and stoicism in undertaking so many journeys in his lifetime enabled his understanding of life in those days and his experiences and social comment to be related in such variety and detail.
His visit to Easthorpe Hall for three weeks in July 1843 undoubtedly left an impression. In a letter to Felton dated 1st September, he recalled how “For days and weeks we never see the sky but through green boughs: and all day long, I cantered over such moss and turf that the horses’ feet scarcely made a sound upon it. We performed some madnesses there; in the way of forfeits, picnics, rustic games, inspections of monasteries at night when the moon was shining.”
We may well speculate on the contrast Dickens found in North Yorkshire with its wooded and open aspects compared with the dinginess and squalor he found in so many examples of city life which he described in his books. And which monasteries did he visit at midnight. Was it Kirkham and Old Malton Priory?
Of Easthorpe Hall itself, (now sadly destroyed) he wrote on 6th July 1843 to Daniel Maclise, “For I am quite serious in saying that this is the most remarkable place of its size in England, and immeasurably the most beautiful”.
The Yorkshire Gazette of July 8th 1843 records, “We understand that Charles Dickens Esq the admired and talented author of “Pickwick”, etc is now on a visit with his lady at Easthorpe, the hospitable abode of Charles Smithson Esq Solicitor, Malton, and that he has visited Old Malton Abbey and other remarkable places in the vicinity.”
His pen was not idle even on vacation, for he wrote here a poem for Lady Blessington entitled “A Word in Season” which appeared subsequently in The Keepsake, a fashionable annual edited by that Lady. He also wrote part of Martin Chuzzlewit. The character of Sairey Gamp is reputed to be a portrait of the housekeeper in the temporary employ of Charles Smithson.
WhiIst in Malton, Dickens also became acquainted with a resident, Mrs Jump and her husband who lived in a little white house standing just below a beautiful clump of beech trees on the north side what is now Middlecave Road. It is thought he portrayed her as Mrs MacStinger in Domeby and Son.
Rumour has it that the novelist arrived once from London by coach. Dismounting at The Talbot he found that no proper conveyance was available to take him to Easthorpe. Conversation revealed that a hearse might be available. Without further ado he chartered this most unusual vehicle and travelled to his destination on the box alongside the driver.
Never one to be of a retiring disposition, it is known that Dickens entertained an audience at the theatre (now demolished) in Malton, originally in Saville Street.
At the time Dickens visited Malton in July 1843, Alfred Lamert Dickens (younger brother of Charles) who was a civil engineer, was engaged on the construction of the York, Malton Scarborough Railway line and had an office in the Market Place, Malton. At this time he was living at Hillside Cottage, Greengate, Malton and later at Derwent Cottage, Scarborough Road, Norton. He was one of the administrators who extracted the grant of letters of Administration as Charles Smithson failed to leave a will.
Nor did the great author forget his friend. Charles Smithson lives still as Mr Spenlow of Spenlow and Jorkins in David Copperfield. On his death Mr Spenlow also failed to leave a will. Dickens in a letter to his wife Kate from the Abbey House dated 6th April 1844 described how he and the Smithson family searched high and low at the Office in Chancery Lane and at the Abbey without success. He wrote, “There appears to be no doubt whatsoever that he died without a will. Every place has been searched that could be thought of and nothing has been found.”
Although the novel ‘A Christmas Carol’ published in December 1843 was not written at Malton, the Smithson family were told by Dickens that the office in Chancery Lane was the model for Scrooge’s Office and that the ‘Bells’ were those of St Leonard’s Church on Church Hill.
In 1841 Dickens was writing Barnaby Rudge in which the Raven is said to have been compounded of two originals kept by the author. The first of these on one occasion ate up a couple of pounds of white lead used for painting the stables and promptly died. Dickens relates, “While I was yet uncomfortable for his loss, a friend of mine in Yorkshire (i.e. Charles Smithson) discovered an older more gifted raven in a village public house, which he prevailed upon the landlord to part with for a consideration, and sent up to me.” This second bird had been obtained at Flamborough originally.
Charles Dickens became Godfather to Charles’ daughter Mary and his letter to Charles Smithson dated 10th May 1843 he wrote “If you will act as my representative at the Font, I will gladly be supposed to make all manner of impossible promises for your blooming daughter, in right of whom I cordially congratulate you and Mrs Smithson.” Visit the Malton area again and read Dickens’ books. Perhaps you can spot further descriptions and incidents which convey the features and spirit of this beautiful region and hold an echo of the Victorian past of Smithson and Dickens and their long friendship.
© Ian R Wray
To find out more about Charles Dickens, visit David Perdue’s Charles Dickens Page